Evaluative and Hedonic Wellbeing Among Those With and Without Children at Home

January 2014
with Arthur A. Stone; in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111(4)

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We document and interpret differences in life evaluation and in hedonic experience between those who live with children and those who do not; most previous literature has concluded that those with children have worse lives. For a sample of 1.8 million Americans of all ages, and without controls for other circumstances, we find little difference in subjective wellbeing between people with and without children. Among those most likely to be parents, life evaluation and all hedonic experiences except stress are markedly better among those living with a child. However, within this group, people who live with children are more likely to be married, richer, better educated, more religious, and healthier, all of which have well-documented positive associations with evaluative and hedonic wellbeing. With statistical controls for these background factors, the presence of a child has a small negative association with life evaluation, although it is associated with more of both positive and negative hedonics. These patterns are replicated in the English-speaking countries of the world, but not in other regions. We argue that the causal effect of children on parental wellbeing, which is the target for most of the literature, is not well defined. Instead, we interpret our rich-country results within a theory of children and wellbeing in which adults sort into parenthood according to their preferences. In poor, high-fertility countries, we find evidence that at least some people have children even when it diminishes their personal wellbeing.